Diamond driller and sunrise over Northwest B.C.  A scene from KONELĪNE: our land beautiful.. A Canada Wild Production

Nettie Wild’s magnificent new documentary, Koneline, is a fully fleshed-out portrait of a place and its diverse inhabitants. Shot in northwestern B.C. in the region of the Stikine River and the Cassiar Mountains, it’s a film of contrasts anchored by an inclusive even-handedness that reflects the filmmaker’s mature view of her subject, a wild habitat of pristine beauty and precious natural resources that is home to the Tahltan First Nation, fishermen, miners, hunting guides and hydro workers, all of whom are in thrall to the area’s remoteness.

Northern Lights on the North West Transmission Line.                              A scene from KONELĪNE: our land beautiful.                             A Canada Wild Production.

Some are attracted by the Northern Lights, the snow-covered mountains, glaciers and the howling wolves; others by the Stikine River valley (“the Serengeti of North America”). The Tahltan First Nation elders are worried about Imperial Metals’ mine (Wild cuts from their meeting with the mining company’s supervisor and B.C. Cabinet Minister to a pristine birch grove but also pointedly shows the bonds between the elders and a young Tahltan miner who welcomes the opportunity to feed his family and the compromise that seems to be the modus operandi of everyone involved).

The ecstasy of stick gambling,                                   A scene from KONELĪNE: our land beautiful.                                   A Canada Wild Production.

A Tahltan father and son spend a day killing and cleaning a moose, then the evening playing fiddle and guitar in a dance band; a woman who hunts in the bush also makes moccasins with her husband; others fish the river as their ancestors did 8,000 years ago; and there are those whose love of stick gambling is vocation enough. A hunting guide clears 100 miles of trails and guides her pack of horses from a motorboat as they swim across a wide river to prepare for a season of 14-hour tourist-driven days of hunting.

The astounding images and the stories of the people who live within them are enhanced by Koneline’s evocative electronic score by Jesse Zubot and Hildegard Westerkamp, whose fingerprints seem to be all over the soundtrack. Known for her work as a founding member of R. Murray Schaefer’s World Soundscape Project, soundwalking -- her own environmental listening events -- and her considerable contribution to several films of Gus Van Sant, Westerkamp is able to contextualize an individual within his surroundings using an uncanny blend of natural and electronic sounds. At one point the sound of ice pellets and the wind merge into a melodious hybrid; sometimes we seem to be listening to a concerto for wind. At others, the soundtrack varies from wariness and apprehension to inspiration, intensifying Wild’s narrative.

Koneline: Landscape with Pink Sky

Koneline [Kóh - nah - lee - nah] won the Best Feature Documentary Award at the 2016  Hot Docs Canadian and International Film Festival.

Koneline: our land beautiful begins a limited week-long engagement June 10 at the Bloor Hot Docs Cinema.

Jimmy “Duck” Holmes, Bobby Rush and writer-director Daniel Cross CREDIT Ryan Mullims

 

Daniel Cross, the writer and director of the lively new documentary, I Am the Blues, believes that the blues is the root of all music. “It’s about the first-person lived experience,” he said after the film had its Canadian premiere at the recent Hot Docs film festival. At 18, he had his own experience with bluesmen when he went on a vodka run at a blues festival on the West Coast and returned with his bounty and was welcomed with open arms by a number of legendary musicians.

Now, more than three decades later, his mission to record the last of the original blues devils still working the Chitlin’ Circuit has born fruit with this joyful testament. The film is a musical journey through the swamps of the Louisiana Bayou, the juke joints of the Mississippi Delta and the moonshine-soaked BBQs in the North Mississippi Hill Country. Several octogenarians act as guides on the journey, telling the stories behind the songs and jamming on a front porch. Bobby Rush, 80ish, gets his inspiration these days while driving his car on the back roads; at seven, while he was picking cotton, he passed the time imagining himself on stage with Muddy Waters or Cab Calloway. In Chicago in the 1950s, he played behind a curtain -- white customers didn’t want to see the faces of black musicians.

Lazy Lester CREDIT Gene Tomko

Lil’ Buck Sinegal, the “Master of the Stratocaster,” plays an electric blues riff as a crawfish boil is cooking. “The blues made me and I’m making blues now,” he says before talking shop with Blues Hall of Fame member and master of the harmonica, Lazy Lester, while picking crawfish out of the bowl. Barbara Lynn, a youngster in her mid-70s joins Bobby Rush and Lester in an impromptu Stagger Lee that jumps with life. There’s a memorable moment with L.C. Ulmer just months before his death. Soul blues diva Carol Fran shows her stuff. Making music nourishes their spirit.

L.C. Ulmer CREDIT Gene Tomko

Jimmy “Duck” Holmes, the proud owner and operator of the legendary Blue Front Cafe, the centre of musical life in Bentonia, Mississippi, has carried on the business his parents opened the year after he was born in 1948. Bud Spires, another mouth harp virtuoso learned from his father from the age of five. That is how the blues survived.  I Am the Blues wonders if the tradition can regenerate, even as the film presents a great case for those who carry it on and Skip James, Bentonia’s most famous son, belts out Crow Jane as the credits roll.

L.C. Ulmer CREDIT Gene Tomko

I Am the Blues plays a limited engagement at the Bloor Hot Docs Cinema, June 3 to 9. Held over at the Bloor, it expands to Cineplex Canada Square and the Kingsway Theatre beginning June 10.

Don Cheadle as Miles Davis CREDIT Brian Douglas COURTESY Sony Pictures Classics

Don Cheadle directs and stars in Miles Ahead, a mercurial portrait of the jazz icon Miles Davis. Cheadle’s uncanny physical transformation and convincing performance conjures up the quixotic trumpeter while the soundtrack, heavily laden with Davis’ own recordings, is a well-chosen accompaniment to the fictional plot point that is the impetus for this uncommonly good piece of cinematic entertainment.

Set in 1979, at the end of a fallow period of creativity that stretched for five years when Davis was more interested in drugs than playing his instrument, the film revolves around the stolen tape of Davis’ first recording session since his withdrawal from the scene. Issues with his record company and various unscrupulous producers get conflated with a Rolling Stone writer looking for a story, the simultaneous search for cocaine and the recovery of the tape, along with flashbacks to the 1950s and Davis’ memories of his second wife, Frances Taylor. (Her face adorned several of his album covers, including Someday My Prince Will Come -- there’s a subtle reference to it in the film.)

Emayatzy Corinealdi as Franes Taylor CREDIT Brian Douglas COURTESY Sony Pictures Classics

Steven Baigelman and Cheadle’s script avoids the pitfalls of most music bio-pics by not being a bio-pic. Instead the focus is on a specific period of the subject’s life with allusions to another, all in the service of presenting the protagonist as a working musician (or a blocked one; as Davis puts it early on, he stopped playing because he has nothing to say).

The movie opens with Agharta: Prelude Part 2, slides into Kind of Blue’s iconic So What, pointedly uses Jack Johnson’s Duran as we see an old newsreel of Johnson boxing Jim Jeffries, brings commercial radio into play with a DJ and Solea from Sketches from Spain, introduces Frances (Emayatzy Corinealdi) with Frelon Brun from Filles de Kilimanjaro, takes us inside the master’s dishevelled lair with Rolling Stone journalist, Dave Braden (Ewan McGregor), before Braden and Davis drive uptown in Davis’ Jaguar accompanied by the short, sharp, jagged sounds of We Want Miles’ Back Seat Betty. By the middle of the film’s first act, its score has already reached the heights of Clint Eastwood’s Bird, Bertrand Tavernier’s Round Midnight and Louis Malle’s Elevator to the Gallows (which Davis himself composed in 1958).

There’s a brief flashback to Davis’ life with Frances listening to Chopin, Stravinsky and Ravel, “revolutionaries, innovators.” And a remarkable re-creation of the recording session of Gone from Porgy and Bess, working with Teo Macero and Gil Evans. As well as a brief interchange in a club between Davis and Bill Evans, with Coltrane and others performing Blue in Green from Kind of Blue, just before Davis goes outside for a cigarette and gets hassled/arrested by a racist cop.

Don Cheadle as the younger Miles Davis CREDIT Brian Douglas COURTESY Sony Pictures Classics

The movie’s present is kinetic, edgy, movement-based; the flashbacks are cool and reflective. Many of the scenes were written with specific Davis tunes in mind. The scenes were shot to the music playing in the background, which goes a long way to explain the seamless integration of sound and image.

Cheadle learned to play the trumpet (with the help of Wynton Marsalis) and did so in several scenes. Even though we never hear him, it’s a big part of the actor becoming the character.

Other key elements of the soundtrack are the elusive Wayne Shorter tune Sanctuary from Bitches Brew, the uncannily contemporary Black Satin from On the Corner, the funky Go Ahead John from Big Fun, Nefertiti (which plays throughout an argument between Davis and Frances), Teo from Someday My Prince Will Come, He Loved Him Madly from Get Up With It and Moja Part 1 and 2 from Dark Magus Live at Carnegie Hall (which perfectly underscores the climactic chase scene) are other key elements of the soundtrack.

The film ends with a comeback fantasy jam, “What’s Wrong with That?,”  written by Robert Glasper, that imagines Cheadle as Davis playing in the present day with guest performers Glasper, Herbie Hancock, Wayne Shorter, Gary Clark, Jr., Esperanza Spalding and Antonio Sanchez. Cheadle sports #Social Music on his shirt, a reference to Davis’ preferred sobriquet for jazz, a term he disliked. Whatever it’s called, music has seldom been this well integrated into a movie.

Miles Ahead is currently playing at the Cineplex Varsity and VIP Cinemas.

Christian Bale

The opening today of Knight of Cups at the Cineplex Cinemas Varsity is a reminder that Terrence Malick has had a significant classical music component in all of his films, beginning with Badlands (1973) and its haunting use of Satie’s Three Pieces in the Shape of a Pear. (He’s also capable of a popular music throwdown: in Badlands it was Mickey & Sylvia’s Love Is Strange). For Days of Heaven (1978), Malick memorably turned to Saint-Saëns’ Aquarium from Carnival of the Animals but he also used Leo Kottke and Doug Kershaw to support Ennio Morricone, who composed the bulk of the soundtrack.

Malick hired Hans Zimmer to score The Thin Red Line (1998) and James Horner for The New World (2005) but ended up discarding much of their work, concentrating on Zimmer’s atmospherics and scrapping some of Horner for the simple eloquence of the slow movement of Mozart’s Piano Concerto No.23 K488 and a portion of Wagner’s Prelude to Das Rheingold. By the time of Tree of Life (2011) and To the Wonder (2012), Malick had basically gone full Kubrick, outsourcing much of the soundtrack to pre-existing music leaving Alexandre Desplat’s Tree of Life score dwarfed by music by Tavener, Preisner, Górecki, Mahler, Respighi, Holst, Smetana, Brahms, Berlioz, Mozart, Bach, Couperin, Schumann and Arsenije Jovanović (whose audio artistry combining voices, instruments, field recordings and manipulated sound struck such a chord with Malick that he used excerpts from Jovanović’s works in his last three films).

It’s not only the extraordinary use of Wagner’s Prelude to Act One from Parsifal which elevated the Mont Saint-Michel episode of To the Wonder, it’s the way Malick piled on phrase upon phrase with (often) unrecognizable bits of many works, among them Haydn’s The Seasons and Respighi’s Ancient Airs and Dances, Suite no. 2, the second and third movements of Górecki’s Symphony No.3, the third movement of Rautavaara’s Cantus Arcticus and Shostakovich’s Piano Concerto No. 2 to Rachmaninov’s Isle of the Dead.

Cate Blanchett and Christian Bale

And so it goes with Malick’s latest film, Knight of Cups, a sound and image poem leaning heavily on the classics, with compositions by Arvo Pärt, Pachelbel, Corelli, Chopin, Górecki’s Symphony No.3 (again), Beethoven’s Ninth, Bruch’s Kol Nidrei and some contemporary poptronica from Biosphere and others. Much of the soundtrack is imperceptible or buried in layers, part of an overall sound design. Malick loves the low clarinet figure from Wojciech Kilar’s Exodus, which he makes into a questioning leitmotif for Christian Bale’s title character’s life gone askew. Vaughan Williams’ Fantasy on a Theme of Thomas Tallis has always been a go-to source of celestial beauty, as it is here. Malick repeatedly returns to Grieg’s The Death of Ase as a grounding device for Bale’s failed marriage to Cate Blanchett and uses Grieg’s Solveig’s Song as a point of peaceful repose. Debussy’s Sirènes from his Nocturnes for Orchestra and Six épigraphes antiques: Pour  l'égyptienne, as well as his Images for Orchestra, alternately buoy and add a sense of mystery to the proceedings.

Bale plays a successful screenwriter whose life is presented in fragments as he narrates the film, describing the memories his mind seems to be conjuring up onscreen. Voiceover, a Malick trademark from Day One, here takes the form of Bale’s interior monologues -- in fact, it’s hard to remember a moment where his character speaks directly to another. He’s the recipient of much philosophical badinage, often from women with whom he’s involved. (“Dreams are nice but you can’t live in them” and “You live in a fantasy; you can be whoever you want to be.”) He suffers from an overbearing father (Brian Dennehy, his hefty role bent by old age) and somewhat strained relations with his brother (Wes Bentley). There’s a deliberate parallel with John Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress, as Bale tries to save his soul in L.A.’s lotus land. (The film opens with John Gielgud reading from Bunyan’s poem.)

With Emmanuel Lubezki’s rapturous cinematography, there’s even more to catch your attention. But as Antonio Banderas’ bon vivant character says early on: “Music is playing; it helps me to fall in love.”

Ethan Hawke as Chet Baker

Chet Baker, the epitome of West Coast cool, won the DownBeat Reader’s Poll as best trumpeter over Dizzy Gillespie, Miles Davis and Clifford Brown in 1955, the year after Chet Baker Sings introduced his unembellished, flat vocal stylings to the world. That same year Hollywood cast him in a B-movie war film, Hell’s Horizon, that might have made him a star had his heavy heroin habit not made that an impossibility. Five years later, he appeared as Chet l’americano in Howlers of the Dock, an early, little-known film by director Lucio Fulci who later gained fame with two giallo genre classics, including A Lizard in a Woman’s Skin.

The new Canadian film by Robert Budreau, Born To Be Blue, is a reimagining of Baker’s life starring Ethan Hawke. It juxtaposes black and white film images from a fictional biopic film-within-the-film starring Baker (sparked by the famous William Claxton mid-50s photographs of him that evoked James Dean), with a factually loose narrative history of the trumpeter’s life from 1966 to 1973, when he was relearning his embouchure and struggling to regain his trumpet-playing chops after losing his teeth in a beating related to his drug habit.

Ethan Hawke

Hawke brilliantly captures Baker’s spirit in a convincing portrait of a drug-addled, music-loving womanizer. He’s believable singing “I’ve Never Been in Love Before” a cappella in a bowling alley and covers the iconic “My Funny Valentine” in the studio respectably, his voice lower than Baker’s but just as naked, if not unblemished. Equally essential, however, is Toronto’s Kevin Turcotte, whose uncanny trumpet on the soundtrack makes Hawke’s portrayal believable. The versatile Turcotte also supplies the sound for Gillespie’s and Davis’ horns, in brief cameos in two Birdland scenes.

Pianist David Braid, who arranged much of the extensive music track and even wrote a tune inspired by “Cherokee” and “Salt Peanuts,” leads a solid quartet with Turcotte, bassist Steve Wallace and drummer Terry Clarke. The music in the film is far more reality-based than the plot.

Born To Be Blue pulls no punches with Baker’s love of drugs. “Being a junkie is nobody’s fault,” he says early on. “It makes me happy; I love to get high.”

“Time gets wider, not just longer, and I can get inside every note,” Baker says later, about the effect of heroin on his music making. “Playing on methadone’s like wearing a condom.”

A visit to his parents in Yale, Oklahoma reveals the sourness of Baker’s relationship with his father (Stephen McHattie -- who once played Baker himself in Budreau’s short film The Deaths of Chet Baker -- in a searing cameo). Carmen Ejogo (Baker’s wife in the film-within-the-film) stands in sympathetically for Baker’s many wives and girlfriends. An amiable seducer, Baker used women for self-gratification and as drug procurers. Simply put, he was a junkie who loved to make music, as Born To Be Blue, to its credit, makes clear.

Born To Be Blue is currently onscreen at TIFF Bell Lightbox.

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